A woman holds balloons in the colours of Ukraine's flag
during a pro-Ukrainian rally in the southern coastal town
of Mariupol. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
NATO has demanded that Moscow withdraw its troops from
Ukraine as US President Barack Obama and his Western allies vow
to support Kiev and buttress their own defences against Russia
in the biggest strategic shift since the Cold War.
NATO leaders made clear at a summit in Wales that their
military alliance would not use force to defend Ukraine,
which is not a member, but planned tougher economic sanctions
to try to change Russian behaviour in the former Soviet
The two-day meeting was marked by the most serious east-west
standoff since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago and
the collapse of the Soviet bloc, as well as alarm at
territorial gains by Islamist insurgents in Iraq and Syria.
Western officials voiced deep caution about Kremlin talk of
an imminent ceasefire in a five-month-old armed revolt by
pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, timed just as
NATO was meeting and the European Union was preparing new
Previous such statements had proved to be "smokescreens for
continued destabilisation of Ukraine", NATO Secretary-General
Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after the 28 leaders met
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
"We call on Russia to end its illegal and self-declared
annexation of Crimea," Rasmussen declared. "We call on Russia
to pull back its troops from Ukraine and stop the flow of
arms, fighters and funds to the separatists. We call on
Russia to step back from confrontation and take the path of
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the West was prepared to
lend weight to those demands with further sanctions but also
to talk to Moscow about a political solution.
Poroshenko, whose forces have suffered a string of setbacks
in the last week, told reporters he would order a ceasefire
on Friday if an agreement on a peace plan to end the war in
eastern Ukraine is signed at talks in the Belarus capital of
"The only thing we need now for peace and stability is just
two main things: first, that Russia withdraw their troops,
and second, to close the border," the Ukrainian leader said,
adding he was cautiously optimistic about Friday's peace
A NATO military officer said Moscow had "several thousand"
combat troops and hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles
operating in Ukraine. The Kremlin denies it has any forces
fighting alongside the rebels.
The White House said Obama and leaders of Germany, France,
Britain and Italy agreed on the sidelines of the summit that
Russia should face "increased costs" for its actions.
French President Francois Hollande said tougher EU sanctions,
due to be adopted on Friday, would depend on events in the
coming hours. Diplomats said there was little chance of them
being derailed, even if a ceasefire were signed.
The NATO leaders also discussed how to tackle Islamic State
militants who have captured swathes of Iraq and Syria, posing
a new security threat on the alliance's southeastern flank,
and how to stabilise Afghanistan when NATO's combat mission
there expires at the end of the year.
Poroshenko's forces were battling to cling to the key port of
Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, which is vital to Ukrainian
steel exports. Explosions were heard close to the city,
halfway between Crimea and Russia.
The Ukrainian leader sought arms and training for his armed
forces from Western partners as well as political support
against Russian President Vladimir Putin. He hinted that
several NATO countries had agreed to provide lethal or
non-lethal military equipment but gave no details.
Poroshenko avoided public talk of reviving Ukraine's bid to
join NATO which had reopened a rift among the allies. Obama
said in Estonia on Wednesday that the door to membership
would remain open to states that meet NATO standards and "can
make meaningful contributions to allied security", but France
and Germany remain opposed to admitting Kiev, fearing it
would exacerbate tension with Moscow and could suck them into
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov underlined Moscow's
opposition to Ukraine joining NATO, warning that attempts to
end the country's non-aligned status could harm security. He
accused the United States of supporting "the party of war" in
After a week of defiant statements from Putin, Lavrov said
Russia was ready for practical steps to de-escalate the
crisis and urged Kiev and the rebels to heed ceasefire
proposals put forward by Moscow on Wednesday.
As more than a decade of inconclusive NATO-led combat
operations in Afghanistan draws to a close, marked by a
solemn ceremony at the summit on Thursday, the alliance is
refocusing in part on its core task of defending its
Leaders will announce the creation of a "spearhead" rapid
reaction force on Friday, potentially involving some 4,000
troops, that could be sent to a hotspot in as little as two
days, officials say.
Eastern European NATO members, including Poland, wanted NATO
to station thousands of troops permanently on their territory
to deter any possible Russian attack.
But NATO members have spurned that idea, partly because of
the expense and partly because they do not want to break a
1997 agreement with Russia under which NATO committed not to
base significant combat forces in the east.
Instead, leaders will agree to pre-position equipment, fuel
and ammunition in eastern European countries with bases ready
to receive the NATO rapid reaction force if needed.
The Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the only
parts of the former Soviet Union to be admitted to NATO, fear
Moscow could meddle in their affairs with the same rationale
it applied in Ukraine - protecting Russians. All three have
significant Russian minorities.
So far, Western military support for Ukraine has been mostly
symbolic. NATO leaders approved a package of support for
Kiev, pledging trust funds worth some 15 million euros ($19.4
million) to improve Ukrainian military capabilities in
logistics, command and control and cyber defence.
A dozen countries will join an exercise in Lviv, Ukraine,
later this month, co-hosted by Ukraine and the US Army.
NATO suspended security cooperation with Russia in March
after the annexation of Crimea but the leaders stopped short
of severing frozen political ties in hopes of a future thaw.
France, which has faced fierce pressure from Washington and
other NATO allies to halt the sale of two helicopter carriers
to Russia, said on Wednesday it would not for now deliver the
first of the warships due to Moscow's actions in Ukraine.
Hollande said the deal was not cancelled or suspended, but a
ceasefire and a political settlement were necessary for
What NATO leaders will agree to do to help Iraq combat
Islamic State militants is less clear. Rasmussen said the
allies would consider seriously any request from Iraq for
assistance in dealing with the growing insurgency by Sunni
The alliance as a whole is highly unlikely to follow the US
lead in staging military strikes on Islamic State, NATO
diplomats say, though individual allies such as France and
Britain might do so. NATO could revive a mission to help
train the Iraqi armed forces that it halted in 2011,